Streaming on Netflix
Metadata: 2015 | PG-13 | 96 minutes *in Turkish with English and Spanish subtitles
Genre: Independent Cinema, International
Why I watched: I was thinking through my own viewing practices, which are so heavily centered on Western cinema, and decided to add in some diversity. After sifting through the films available on the various streaming platforms, Mustang came up over and over again. I gave it a watch (with English subtitles on, because I don't speak Turkish unfortunately!) and am so glad that I did.
You might also like: Almost every critic equated Mustang—both because of its narrative and ethereal imagery—to The Virgin Suicides (Sophia Coppola, 1999), currently streaming on Starz. Based on Jeffrey Eugenides's novel by the same name, the film follows a group of sisters whose parents keep them essentially locked away as they near adulthood. Oh! And it's one of my favorite movies.
If my pitch doesn't get you to watch Mustang, the number of five-star reviews and Oscar nomination it received should. In a rural Turkish village in Anatolia, five orphaned sisters—Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur, and Lale—run to the beach after school to play a game of chicken with a group of boys. When their neighbor sees them, she reports to their conservative grandmother that the girls were "pleasuring" themselves on the necks of the boys. After subjecting the girls to medical examinations to ensure that their hymens are intact, their misogynistic uncle turns their home into a compound, soldering bars onto the windows to prevent the girls from leaving. All in the name of retaining the teens' virginity so that their families will be able to broker traditional arranged marriages for them. In the words of youngest sister and narrator Lale (Güneş Şensoy), "Our house became a wife factory."
Mustang is the debut film from Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven. While her film became the darling of the French festival circuit, Ergüven received negative attention in her home country after the its debut. But she says the film presents the experience of many Turkish women who, like Lale, dream of escaping the patriarchal conditions of their culture. The film brings several other newcomers to the screen, including the young Turkish women who play the sisters, Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit Işcan, Tuğba Sun Guroğlu, and Ilayda Akdoğan, only one of whom had ever acted before. "Even if we’re not living [in] the same situation [or facing] arranged marriages, by living in Turkey we are experiencing the pressure. Political figures, especially men, are talking too much about what women should do and what they shouldn’t do,” says Elit Işcan, referring to speeches by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, in 2014, stated that women are not equal to men.
Despite the fact that a sense of place is so crucial to this film, I found myself enraptured, identifying with these girls who dream of going to Istanbul, who feel suffocated by gender expectations. Their attachment to one another, too, as if the sisters are physically connected resonates with me. Their story is haunting, yes, but its also hopeful and beautiful. It's a story of the uncontainability of adolescence and female power. We have the feeling that we're watching something raw and real when we see them tumble in the waves, later in the sheets of their beds that they pretend are water. Their long hair drifts behind them like messy manes that remind us of their untamability.
Watch this one, y'all. It's worth it.